From the Auburn miracle, to great stories at Duke and Missouri, to disappointing flameouts from Fresno State and Wisconsin, college football Week 14 was full of big games. Here are some thoughts on the most notable twelve results, the ones that directly affected positions in championship games or BCS bowls…
Auburn 34 Alabama 28: In the early part of last week I was asking a friend his thoughts on the most iconic sports moment thus far of 2013. I threw out possibilities like Ray Allen’s big three-pointer in Game 6 of the NBA Finals or David Ortiz’ epic grand slam in Game 2 of the American League Championship series, or Dave Bolland’s tip-back goal that won the Stanley Cup Finals.
It turns out the entire conversation was wasted air, because it’s impossible to imagine that anything will trump what happened with Nick Davis’ 108-yard return of a missed field goal to win this game on the final play (officially it’s 100 yards, but Davis was eight yards deep in the end zone when he fielded the 57-yard-field goal try).
I’ve wondered if Alabama coach Nick Saban might have done anything differently. It was clearly the right decision to try the field goal. The fact the kicker got within a couple yards of making it vindicates that, and in any case, you can’t not try a game-winning kick on the grounds that a miracle play was about to occur.
But how big a miracle was it, when you have your offensive lineman trying to cover one of Auburn’s fastest players? Auburn coach Gus Malzahn adjusted to the situation and put Davis in to go for a return. While replays showed Alabama players seeming to take for granted their need to go down and cover, shouldn’t Saban have had a couple guys on the field from his punt coverage team?
Saban is a great coach, but my podcast colleague Greg DePalma has opined in the past that the reason Saban and other top college coaches don’t make it in the NFL is that they fail in basic game management decisions, which win or lose games at the pro level almost every week, whereas it rarely comes down to that in college. I’m not sure if I agree, but Greg got some new ammo for his argument.
Ohio State 42 Michigan 41: Speaking of getting ammo, Ohio State now has the ammo to argue it deserves to control its destiny for the BCS National Championship Game, as one of only three unbeaten teams left and one of those (Northern Illinois) being a mid-major. But the way the Buckeyes won this game handed their critics–which include TheSportsNotebook–ammo of our own.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has struggled badly most of the year, but on Saturday he resembled another former Michigan QB, one by the name of Tom Brady. Gardner threw for 451 yards. His only mistake was on the two-point conversion to decide the game. Go watch the replay of the game and you can see if Gardner throws it to the outside shoulder of the receiver, it’s a catch and a win. Instead, the ball goes inside where the defender intercepts it.
The fact the Buckeyes were shredded by Gardner must surely have Florida State’s Jameis Winston licking his chops. As for Michigan, the fact they allowed nearly 400 yards of rushing has to have Bo Schembecler turning over in his grave.
Missouri 28 Texas A&M 21: Mizzou locks up the SEC East title and a date with Auburn on Saturday for the conference championship. It was a nice defensive effort, as the Tigers kept Johnny Manziel underneath all night long in the passing game. Manziel went 24-for-35, but those completions only got 195 yards.
Duke 27 North Carolina 25: The Blue Devils earned the ACC Coastal Division by beating their division’s hottest team on the road in a big rivalry game. That’s called earning it. Duke intercepted North Carolina’s Marquise Williams, the final one squelching a potential game-winning drive. Anthony Boone played efficiently for Duke in the passing game in what was a fun back-and-forth game to watch.
San Jose State 62 Fresno State 52: I should have stuck to my guns. All year, I’ve been projecting Fresno State to lose because of their weak defense and targeting this game as a potential pitfall. Then San Jose stumbled the last few weeks and I backed off.
San Jose’s David Fales shredded the Bulldogs for 577 pass yards and six touchdowns. Fresno quarterback Derek Carr tossed six scoring passes of his own in a game that was 27-21 after the first quarter, but when you play rotten defense it eventually catches up to you. I should have remembered that.
Penn State 31 Wisconsin 24: The Nittany Lions came to Madison as a 24-point underdog, and proceeded to commit eight illegal motion penalties and mess up two field goals. Yet they still won a game not as close as the score makes it sound. How?
Let’s start with effort–I watched this game, and it was clear from the start Penn State’s players simply wanted it more. Whether Wisconsin was distracted by Senior Day activity or thinking about a BCS game, the Badgers looked like they had somewhere else to be. Penn State might not have always played smart or efficiently, but effort cures a lot of ills and these kids brought it.
Then Wisconsin just did uncharacteristic things. The defense was confused. The offensive play-calling went soft, with Joel Stave throwing 53 passes. And this was a game tied at the half, so it wasn’t like UW was behind the entire way. Stave threw three interceptions, but most damaging were his constant overthrows of an open Jared Abberderis down field. The Badgers fell behind 31-14 before a late rally got them one last desperate pass to the end zone.
Northern Illinois 33 Western Michigan 14: I attended this game last Tuesday in Dekalb, and with the temperatures below 20 and stiff, cold winds then blowing in and making it feel sub-zero with the windchill, it was the coldest game I’ve ever been at. It explains why no one could throw the ball, and why receivers looked like they were trying to catch a rock when it was tossed at them.
Jordan Lynch covers for almost anything though, and he barreled through overmatched Western Michigan for 321 yards on the ground and made his Heisman case in a year where other contenders keep falling by the wayside.
South Carolina 31 Clemson 17: Turnovers were the story here, as Tajh Boyd threw two interceptions and Clemson also lost a fumble, while South Carolina played error-free. This game probably doesn’t directly affect the BCS, but it does keep the Gamecocks at least viable as an at-large choice from the SEC if a bowl would rather have an enthusiastic South Carolina fan base over a depressed Alabama one. It also opens up the possibility that Clemson could miss, although the Tigers remain a favorite to end up in the Orange Bowl.
A more indirect effect of this game is that a big non-conference win for the SEC gives the league more help in the computer rankings. With Missouri’s only loss being in overtime to South Carolina that could still matter in the national title picture. South Carolina’s win on Saturday was part of a 3-1 day for the SEC over the ACC, the only loss being overmatched Florida against Florida State.
Oregon 36 Oregon State 35: The Ducks remain a possible choice for a BCS at-large, though it still looks unlikely at this point. This game was sloppy, with three turnovers apiece and Marcus Mariota only completing 17/34 passes. But Mariota hit a 12-yard scoring pass for the game-winning points with 29 seconds left.
Central Florida 23 South Florida 28: Central Florida is still on pace to win the American Athletic title and get an automatic BCS slot, but the Knights are really stumbling to the finish line against some bad teams. South Florida didn’t even play well, with 11 penalties and a couple turnovers, but UCF had five turnovers and that kept it close to the end.
Marshall 59 East Carolina 28: I thought East Carolina’s defense would be better than this. This rout wasn’t even about the brilliant Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato making plays. Cato played well, but the story of the day was the Thundering Herd running game, as Essray Taliaferro ran for 161 yards. Marshall’s defense also intercepted ECU quarterback Shane Harden three ties. Marshall takes the winner-take-all battle for the Conference USA East title.
Rice 17 Tulane 13: Rice will be Marshall’s opponent on Saturday in the C-USA title game. The Rice defense shut down a Tulane team that is likely bowl-bound at 7-5. The Owls held the Green Wave to 26 yards rushing and forced Nick Montana into a 14/31 for 97 yards day passing.
Bowling Green 24 Buffalo 7: This game was to determine Northern Illinois’ opponent in the MAC title game and the Huskies better not sleep on Bowling Green. The Falcons physically dominated the Bison on the road, with Travis Greene having a big day running and Buffalo unable to generate any kind of rush offense.
We’ll preview all of the conference championship games later in the week, but be aware that Bowling Green-Northern Illinois might be the best of the lot.